The list of literary superhero novels is a short one. Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman and The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible by Neil Connelly would both be on the list. And maybe The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes. But what else?
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem aren’t superhero novels but we’d include them on our list as examples of how comic books (and by extension, superheroes) can inspire great authors to write great novels.
We would put Tigerman by Nick Harkaway on the list as well. It isn’t technically a superhero novel, but there is a “superhero” character in the book and the author does include a substantial amount of informed comic book chatter. Who knows? Years from now, Harkaway’s novel might very well be seen as a great leap forward in the evolution of superhero prose fiction. We think it’s very very good.
The novel takes place on Mancreu, an island precariously located on the lip of the great mid-ocean ridge in the Arabian Sea. The locals were an unbothered ethnic jumble of Arab and African and Asian, with the inevitable admixture of Europeans. In many ways Mancreu was like a tropical island version of Shangri-La.
But it was a lawless place, too—a convenience for killers and torturers and tax evaders and drug bankers, for scum of the earth. It was like Casablanca, a haven for people on the edge of the world. It was also the perfect breeding ground for vigilante justice inspired by comic books.
Harkaway does an excellent job laying the groundwork for his superhero adventure. Lester Ferris, senior officer in the United Kingdom’s Mancreu Command, was a boxing hobbyist, he lived in a large mansion with an extensive armory (how convenient!), he was the graduate of a six-day course in public order and detection from the Metropolitan Police Service, he experienced a profound, dreamlike superhero awakening, and he had his very own boy wonder. And most importantly, he possessed a Batman-like obsession that would ultimately inspire his transformation into Tigerman, the hero of Mancreu. These superhero tropes (and others) coalesce slowly and satisfactorily as the novel moves forward—like the author says, “There must be development-over-time or it is just noise.” Amen to that.
There was a lot going on with Ferris and his ward and the doomed island inhabitants of Mancreu. All of the characters carried the weight of living in an isolated, hopeless Eden. Ferris, especially, was burdened by a life of missed opportunities and he continued to struggle with a personal ennui that superseded the messy situation on the island.
But at some point he had an idea, one that was both foolish and savage. He would lay down the law. Not a law in words, but a law seen in the pages of Batman, Captain America, Superman, and Green Lantern. And even if you didn’t read comic books at all, the right people would know, without any ambiguity, where the law began and ended, and what came if you crossed it. “I am Tigerman,” he growled. “Whoomf!”
[Tigerman / By Nick Harkaway / First Printing: July 2014 / ISBN: 9780385352413]